To Some, Aid To Columbia A Risky Maneuver for U.S.

To Some, Aid To Columbia A Risky Maneuver for U.S.
Posted by FoM on February 18, 2000 at 07:18:20 PT
By Paul de la Garza, Tribune Foreign Correspondent
Source: Chicago Tribune
It was an extraordinary gesture intended to create momentum for peace, but the government decision to cede an area the size of Switzerland to Marxist rebels in the coca-growing region of southern Colombia seems to have backfired.Fifteen months later, Colombian officials accuse the rebels of using the demilitarized zone to launch attacks against government troops and to smuggle cocaine out of the country in exchange for weapons from Nicaragua and El Salvador.
As the insurgency and drug trade flourish, U.S. congressional committees have begun considering a $1.3 billion emergency aid package the Clinton administration is proposing for Colombia, ostensibly to fight the drug war. Critics of the effort, called Plan Colombia, believe the funds will only entangle the U.S. in the nation's civil war.The biggest single item in the package is $400 million for purchasing 30 Blackhawk and 33 Huey helicopters, an RG-8A reconnaissance plane, night-vision systems for aging planes and air base and radar enhancements.Military and paramilitary officials say the helicopters will enable Colombian government troops to take the war to the guerrillas. In the past, Colombian troops have been easy prey to rebel ambushes because they have to cover treacherous terrain on foot.Since last fall, the military has recorded some successes against the Marxist-inspired Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, by using a fleet of about 20 Blackhawks already in inventory, according to retired military officials and analysts.Once criticized for spreading itself too thin, the military also reportedly has pulled back troops based in distant and vulnerable posts.Rebel leaders say the U.S. aid will lead to further bloodshed as the military uses its new equipment against them. They also argue U.S. involvement will only complicate the peace process by creating an environment of mistrust.In an interview in a hot and dusty camp outside San Vicente del Caguan on a recent Sunday afternoon, Comandante Raul Reyes, the third-ranking leader of the FARC, urged the U.S. to stay out of Colombia, a nation of 41 million people."Plan Colombia is a plan for war financed, again, regrettably, by the United States, with the excuse that it is to fight narcotrafficking," he said. "It is a way of interfering in the domestic affairs of Colombia."They are preparing for a major role in the war."In an interview in Mexico City last week, Barry McCaffrey, director of the U.S. drug policy office, reiterated the American position that the United States is not complicating the peace process."The Colombians have to sort this out for themselves," McCaffrey said, noting that Plan Colombia includes funding from various international sources, including foreign governments, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank."It's got to be their decision. . . . We have no business telling them what to do with the (demilitarized zone)," he said.But a recently retired general in the Colombian military says the U.S. is playing a bigger role in the conflict than it is willing to admit."The U.S. gives and it controls," said the former general. "They are the ones who give the orders."U.S. and Colombian officials categorically deny that the U.S. is directly involved in the war, insisting that America provides only training and intelligence to the Colombian authorities to fight the drug war.The U.S., whose personnel provide support at the Tres Esquinas military base south of San Vicente del Caguan, already is supplying intelligence from satellites and spy planes to Colombia, whose drug czars supply most of the cocaine sold on American streets.In recent years, with the threat of war spilling into oil-rich Venezuela and the Panama Canal, Washington has fretted over Colombia's inability to fight the FARC, a force of 15,000 that by some estimates controls at least half of Colombia.Bogota has become the third-largest recipient of U.S. aid, behind Israel and Egypt.Although U.S. aid to Colombia has steadily increased in recent years, the CIA says coca cultivation is increasing in the region the rebels control in the south. Authorities attribute the rise to new varieties of coca and to new refining techniques.According to political analysts, the battle in Colombia is no longer a battle over ideology, but a battle over so-called narcodollars, with the FARC and its nemeses, the paramilitaries, playing a larger role in the drug trade.As coca production increases the FARC keeps getting richer, able to buy new weapons, including surface-to-air missiles from black market dealers in Nicaragua and El Salvador. An attack on coca production, therefore, is seen as an attack on a vital source of rebel income.Reyes, the FARC commander, denied a role in the drug trade, insisting the rebels get most of their money from extortion and kidnappings. Remember, he said, that the FARC was a formidable enemy long before cocaine trafficking flourished in Colombia. The FARC launched its rebellion in 1964.Two years ago, with the war entering its 34th year, then-presidential candidate Andres Pastrana made peace talks with the FARC the cornerstone of his campaign.That got him elected, analysts said.Shortly after taking office in August 1998, Pastrana made good on his campaign promise. To bring the rebels to the negotiating table, he demilitarized a large region in southern Colombia and ceded it to the rebels.American officials said Pastrana had little choice.Pastrana, however, did not get an agreement from the FARC for a cease-fire, and he has come under criticism for giving too much in exchange for nothing.To make matters worse, Colombia is suffering from its worst economic crisis in decades, and Pastrana's popularity has plummeted. The demilitarized zone is a thorn in his side.On a recent Saturday afternoon, the radio at the Aqui Yo Como restaurant in San Vicente del Caguan spewed a steady stream of merengue music.Across the street in Founders' Park a little girl on in-line skates zigzagged along narrow sidewalks teeming with young families, while scores of other children jammed the seesaws and the jungle gym. It all seemed so ordinary.But Founders' Park and the rest of San Vicente del Caguan is the base of operations for the FARC. On park benches, on the street, and at the cultural center next to Aqui Yo Como, young men and women in rubber boots and dark green military fatigues tote grenades and side arms and assault rifles.Residents in San Vicente del Caguan worry that because they live in the demilitarized zone, they unfairly have been labeled guerrilla sympathizers. If the peace talks collapse, they fear the paramilitaries will come in after them.The paramilitaries make no effort to allay their fears."Paramilitaries only kill somebody if it has been proven that the victim is a guerrilla or a guerrilla sympathizer," a member of a paramilitary outfit said.In San Vicente del Caguan, local officials complain that the FARC, which has taken over the cultural center as its headquarters, is recruiting new charges in town, that area residents are being forced to work in guerrilla-sponsored road projects and that people are being detained illegally.The mayor, Omar Garcia Castillo, said he has complained to the rebel leadership about recruitment in town."They do not say anything, but they get angry," he said.In the end, Garcia said there is not much he can do. "The one who has the authority," he said, "is the one who has the arms."The FARC vehemently denies the charges, insisting they are part of a U.S.-sponsored propaganda campaign. Reyes noted that since arriving in San Vicente del Caguan, the FARC has been good for the community. He said the rebels have paved a number of streets and that the rate of violent crime has declined because, as one comandante put it, "We have earned people's respect."Residents agree that crime is down, but not for the reasons the FARC suggests."It's not respect. It's fear," said a 28-year-old resident. "With the government, you could horse around. Not with them. Their law is strict."U.S. Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.), one of Colombia's staunchest supporters, said the assessment in Washington is that the FARC has used the zone as a ruse to solidify its position. "The first thing I would say is that the peace process has been abused by the FARC," he said.The government insists it cannot overnight end a civil war fueled by hatreds going back centuries and with billions of dollars at stake. "After a while, the violence numbs you," said Francisco Javier Munera Correa, the Roman Catholic bishop here. "After a while, to the people in the villages, one more killing becomes just one more body."Already, tens of thousands of people have died in the conflict, and an estimated 1.5 million civilians have been uprooted from their homes.International relief workers characterize the plight of Colombia's displaced people as the largest humanitarian emergency in the Western Hemisphere. The crisis is larger even than those in Chechnya or Kosovo.Unfortunately for Colombia, the future looks worse.U.S. officials say most of the money in the new aid package would be spent on training and equipment for the military and police in the drug war. Other funding would go toward boosting the judicial system and an economy in shambles.A high-level Pastrana administration official, who requested anonymity, said Colombia could not guarantee that Plan Colombia would not be used against the rebels--or the paramilitaries--because of their ties to drug barons.Invariably, America's role in Colombia conjures up images of Vietnam and Central America, and lately the Clinton administration hasn't put up much of an argument to silence its critics. Although the aid package is expected to sail through Congress, there are plenty of concerns, especially about a rise in human-rights abuses.U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said the Clinton administration should clearly define the intent of the aid package before it is approved."Everyone wants to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the United States, but we have spent billions trying to do that and the flow has gotten worse, not better," Leahy said. "What we are seeing is a dramatic ratcheting up of a counterinsurgency policy in the name of a counterdrug policy."The administration's purpose is to inflict enough damage to the guerrillas that they feel compelled to negotiate. That sounds appealing, but it is a costly and dangerous policy as we saw in Central America in the 1980s."Before now, the national police handled counternarcotics operations. With the military playing a bigger role, nobody expects a quick resolution.In addition to the FARC, Pastrana must contend with a smaller guerrilla force of about 5,000 rebels, the National Liberation Army, and about 6,000 paramilitaries who are financially sponsored by wealthy landowners. The U.S. State Department has linked the paramilitaries to the military.And it isn't only the combatants who are in the way of peace.Analysts say the war rages in part due to crooked politicians who benefit from the drug trade, as well as scores of companies, including chemical and airline concerns.Now the Clinton administration hopes to make a difference, and according to officials in Colombia and in Washington, the U.S. is bound to get its hands dirty.Human-rights activists, meanwhile, citing abuses by the Colombian military and the paramilitaries, say that under Plan Colombia, the situation will worsen. American officials counter that Pastrana has made human rights a top priority in his administration, sacking two generals last year on charges of human-rights violations.Coverdell, the U.S. senator who co-sponsored legislation last year to substantially increase U.S. aid to Colombia, dismissed charges that the U.S. is being drawn into the war. He said American assistance should help silence critics who say Washington has ignored Latin America in the wake of the Cold War."We are protecting a democracy that is under siege," he said.San Vicente Del Caguan, ColombiaPublished: February 18, 2000 2000 Chicago TribuneRelated Articles: U.S. Aid to Colombia the New Drug Lords - Newsweek International Anti-Drug Plan Draws Hill Fire
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